Thursday, January 29, 2009

Luke Jackson -- ...And Then Some

Luke Jackson -- ...And Then Some (Popsicle)

This album starts out with the sunny and optimistic “Come Tomorrow”. This is a lush British jangle rocker. If you like Captain Wilberforce, Cosmic Rough Riders or The General Store (or better yet, you like all of the aforementioned), you may have a new favorite artist. The sweet guitar fills, the cascading harmonies, Jackson’s happy as heck vocals -- it’s all here, a complete pop package.

I have the feeling that Jackson could toss off numbers like this with ease. But Luke has a bit more in mind. Jackson recorded this album in Sweden, and working with the steady hand of Christoffer Lundquist, he tackles more singer-songwriter type tunes with the help of the October 2nd strings.

Jackson’s melodies, even when the songs are moody, always leave a crack in the doorway where you can see the sunlight. This is exemplified on the lovely “A Little Voice”. On this song, Jackson delicately plucks his guitar strings, while the orchestra in back splendidly swirls over and around him. The song manages to be solitary yet hopeful. Although Jackson sings, “But even when I think I’m flying free/something’s getting in the way,” his little voice still seems to keep him on course.

Jackson isn’t just looking inward. On “The Fear”, Jackson has a message for all of us, and that is to break free from the fear that holds us back. (Yes, this is also the message of the Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life). The design of this song is basic and effective. The verses are gentle, and Jackson sounds empathetic and reassuring. Then the chorus swells with the strings and some cool lap steel guitar from Lundquist. Fans of Cloud Eleven and Wisely should eat this up.

The most impressive track on the album is “All I Can Do”, where Jackson pushes his voice to the limit, and a bit past it. Here, the strings are in full force. Jackson’s guitar provides the rhythm, while the strings swoop and soar, playing delightful melodies. This song is about a long distance relationship that’s driving our dear Luke mad, but he resigns himself to his fate. Here, Jackson shows how to make a chorus build for maximum effect, and the middle eight that comes out of the second chorus is simply devastating. The ornate music doesn’t overwhelm the emotions, it amplifies them.

I’m focusing on the weightier material here, but don’t think this entire album will put you through the wringer. Jackson shows off a winning sense of humor on the guitar fueled “Goodbye London”, where he declares he’s had it with the frustrations of living in the big city (like “dodgy Thai cuisine” and a bad CCTV experience that cost him 100 quid). He even engages in some whimsy on the brief instrumental “1970’s Kids TV Show Theme”.

Jackson put a lot of care into this record and found some terrific collaborators. For fans of the bands I referenced above (and I might as well throw in The Pearlfishers too), this is well worth checking out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Glen Campbell -- Meet Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell -- Meet Glen Campbell (Capitol)

Glen Campbell’s comeback is different than those of Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn, just to name two other country stars from his era (and yes, I know Campbell is more of a pop artist, but he was associated with country too). Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin on stripped down recordings that emphasized his incredibly distinctive voice. Meanwhile, Lynn hooked up with Jack White, who had her write songs and provided a bit of rock and roll energy to the proceedings.

However, Campbell’s collaborators, the production team of Julian Raymond and Howard Willing, wisely decided to make a 1967 style Glen Campbell record in 2008. Other than the lack of Jimmy Webb songs (which would be a great idea for a follow up album), Campbell does what he does best -- interpret songs. And Raymond and Willing make sure that the arrangements are fully fleshed out with ample strings, horns, backing vocals and whatever other sonic embellishments are needed.

This attention to detail would be meaningless if Campbell couldn’t sing anymore. But Campbell has lost only a little of his range and still sounds smooth and energetic. And when he gets that little catch in his voice on his version of Lou Reed’s “Jesus”, it just shows how special of a singer he still is. He is the essence of countrypolitan, balancing polish with just a bit of twang that gives his interpretations of more serious material real gravity.

From the brassy opening number “Sing” (a Frances Healy composition), which hearkens back to Michael Nesmith’s early mixtures of horns and country rock, this album breezes along, really gelling about midway through.

First, Campbell’s familiar guitar playing is supported by an aggressive string arrangement on “Times Like These” (originally performed by The Foo Fighters). Julian Raymond gets extra points for picking out this song, with its simple lyrics that basically state that the time for redemption is now. The underlying arrangement of the song is twang rock a la Tom Petty (and Glen does two Petty tunes on the disc). But the heart of the song is Campbell’s leads (guitar and vocals) and the wonderful strings.

Next, Campbell really burrows into Jackson Browne’s classic “These Days”. This song is conclusive proof that Campbell is a grade A interpreter of songs. Listen to his phrasing and how he varies his energy and emphasis. Meanwhile, the tune itself has a driving on the open road feel that is perfect for Campbell (a la “Gentle On My Mind”). And Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.’s keyboard solo is swell (and please note that fellow ex-Jellyfish-er Jason Falkner plays on this album, and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander also lurk about, though the liners don’t say exactly where ).

Campbell then connects with Paul Westerberg’s “Sadly, Beautiful”. This song is about a father who never was in his daughter’s life. It’s a song from The Replacements’ swan song LP All Shook Down that I had overlooked (well, that’s true of the whole album). This is a tender and poignant song which Campbell totally inhabits. And the strings are present, but more muted, which is fitting for this track.

Campbell also does U2, John Lennon and manages a version of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” that, by virtue of a slight change in tempo, makes this vastly overplayed ballad sound fresh again.

One thing about this album that should be noted is that Campbell’s early albums were hodgepodge collections. Between his own material and sessions, Campbell waxed song after song. A hit single or two meant it was time to paste together another LP. Those albums are enjoyable but inconsistent. Here, Campbell was allowed more time to work on these numbers and the result is arguably his best album to date.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Fireman -- Electric Arguments

The Fireman -- Electric Arguments (ATO/MPL)

After a couple of albums that were more in the dance/electronica/ambient bin (or in each of three separate bins), Paul McCartney, for whatever reason, decided that The Fireman could be a place that he could loosen up while still writing pop and rock songs. Because, you know, he’s still pretty good at penning those things. But he hasn’t dropped the experimental bent that he has pursued with collaborator Youth.

This turns out to be a best of both worlds approach. There are a number of swell tunes on this album, and when Macca and Youth decide to stretch out and fool around, they leave it for the end of the album. And because of the delights at the beginning, it’s nice to relax with the soundscapes that take up the last 25 minutes of this effort.

The album gets off to a grand start with “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight”. This track could almost be a 45 of “Helter Skelter” slowed down to 33 rpm. It’s a blistering rave up that sounds like Macca dreaming about what it would have been like to have fronted Led Zeppelin. The rock still would have been majestic, and a tad more melodic. And man, Paulie can still shout and scream with the best of them.

The Fireman then does a 180 degree turn on the sweet acoustic ditty “Two Magpies”. The short song is built around a simple acoustic guitar figure and McCartney’s playful vocals. After a bracing opener, this is a cool drink of water.

It’s just great to hear McCartney do whatever the heck he wants to. There’s another great one-two punch not long after the first two tracks. On “Highway”, McCartney’s voice is slightly distorted, as a harmonica plays along with driving blues tinged rock. The song then opens up just like a highway on a chorus that sounds like it came from the same place as old classics like “Jet”. Throw in a middle eight that has a gospel revival tent feel and you have one of Macca’s best tunes in ages (and his last few albums have been pretty good).

This is followed by the backporch whimsy of “Light from Your Lighthouse”. There isn’t much to this song, but a simple message (look on the bright side) and a dumb catchy chorus. Forty-six years after the first Beatles hit, and McCartney can still pen good hooks.

What is refreshing is that Youth clearly doesn’t want to fuss over things. Although there are some glistening touches, like the bells ringing on the soaring “Dance ‘til We’re High”, it’s clear that Youth and Paul were more concerned with getting the energy and essence of the songs on tape, and the quest for perfection so abandoned, the songs are all better for it.

The album turns on “Lifelong Passion”, which isn’t a tight composition, but floats a melody over a burbling percussion track and a variety of wind instruments and keyboard sounds. This track is still more grounded than what follows.

“Is This Love” sounds like a soundtrack for Buddhist chanting, oscillating and thrumming. “Lover’s in a Dream” is even more atmospheric, and isn’t really centered. The sound swirls in all directions, coalescing slightly while McCartney intones “lovers in a dream/warmer than the sun” like a mantra, sounding ghostly. On “Universal Here, Everlasting Now”, it sounds like they just mashed up a McCartney outtake with another semi-structured cacophony of piano, keyboards,, guitars and who knows what else. The lengthy finale, “Don’t Stop Running” also works the mantra thing over another blend of percussion and all sorts of tricks floating about. Maybe one of these could have been left off, but they all are at least interesting.

I hope that this album has an impact on McCartney’s next proper solo album. There’s a spontaneity here that could have helped the decent Memory Almost Full, which seemed to self-aware about what it was trying to accomplish. Just let it flow, Paulie, ‘cause you’ve still got it.

Springhouse -- From Now To OK

Springhouse – From Now To OK (Independent Project)

Bands come and go for a number of reasons, with lack of money, one member fucking the girlfriend of another member and drugs amongst the popular choices (this would make a good Family Feud question: “Your answer?” “Uh…fucking the lead singer’s girlfriend…” “Oh, the ol’ fucking the lead singer’s girlfriend…survey says…[DING!]…26!”). Which means that talented acts never fully cultivate and develop and bring ideas and talents to full fruition.

This is why I am decidedly pro-reunion. Sure, reigniting the spark can be hard, and often we learn that a band should have left well enough alone as the well ran dry while the band was dissolved. But there are a lot bands who are shitty from day one, so what’s the big deal?

On the other hand, reunions can lead to reinvigorated bands who finally get to finish some of the business that had been laying in the in box for far too long. Mission Of Burma, The Effigies, Radio Birdman…and now Springhouse joins that group of great second time around bands. Perhaps Springhouse isn’t as well known as those three acts, and I don’t know if the band’s two albums from its initial run quite rank up with those three. But they were quite good.

On Land Falls, Springhouse played songs rooted in post-punk and shoegazer sounds, dominated by Mitch Friedland’s shimmering guitar parts and soaring vocals, with measured insistent backing from Larry Heinemann on bass and Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid on drums. On the follow up, Postcards From The Arctic, the band stretched out as the sound became more spacious and atmospheric. It seemed that Springhouse was poised to really explore its sound on a third album…which never came.

Until now. And album number three finds the band taking a different turn. Whereas Postcards felt like being stranded in a vast and wonderful wilderness, as Friedland’s voice came out from the middle of the webs of guitars, bass and drums, From Now To OK is startlingly intimate.

Which isn’t to say that the sound isn’t any less full. But instead of colors bleeding onto each other, every instrument on this album is well defined, including the strings and horns that augment many of the songs.

And those songs! The melodies are stronger than ever, and some of the tunes seem strongly inspired by the baroque pop greats of the ‘60s. That being said, there are things here that stamp this distinctively as Springhouse. There’s a moment on the languid “No More Yesterdays” that exemplifies this. It’s an inviting mid-tempo jangle that almost lulls one to sleep. In the second half of the chorus, the melody heads downward before a little rise at the end. I can’t explain it very well, other to say that this little wrinkle is in the band’s DNA, just like the special wrinkles songwriters like Andy Partridge, Jeff Lynne and Joe Pernice have.

Coming after this is a song that is delicate and whispery, yet it has a bit of anthem in it. “Grateful” has pensive verses, sketching a relationship (or two) on the skids, with the chorus releasing pent up frustration in a measured fashion, Friedland sounding angelic in the uppermost parts of his range, which brings home the moving middle eight, where he basically notes that sometimes you just have to deal with pain.

Freidland’s vocals highlight perhaps the best song on the disc, “10 Count”. It’s a simple boxing metaphor. When your girl knocks you down, “stay on your knees”. After a couple verses and choruses, the band gives way to Lief Arntzen’s extended trumpet solo, which is gripping and amplifies the emotions that Friedland has been portraying.

Springhouse masterfully incorporates horns and strings into the sound. The sweep of the strings is particularly stirring on “Pomegranite Tree”. Indeed, only Friedland’s acoustic guitar and voice join the elegant backing. The starkness of the upfront guitar meshes well with the full accompaniment behind it.

The lusher numbers are generally the best, but there’s more fine jangle on “Moving Van” and Jack Rabid provides a plaintive vocal on the folk-pop “Time Runs Out”. And the shoegazing is not completely absent. The most atmospheric number is the impressive “Sea and Rain”, which has a chorus that bursts from the murk, and the closing track, “Anew”, features some guitar affects on an album where the unadorned acoustic guitar reigns (and the basic acoustic is featured on this track too).

This wasn’t exactly what I expected. It’s even better than I expected, and I figured this album would be pretty good. It’s obvious that these guys continued to grow musically and all of the growth is apparent from the sophistication of these songs. More importantly, I think that this album is imbued with feeling that makes it one of the more resonant albums to come out in 2008.

Friday, January 16, 2009

David Byrne & Brian Eno -- Everything That's Happened Will Happen Today

David Byrne & Brian Eno -- Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todomundo/Opal)

I may be a bit biased in offering my viewpoint on this new album, as David Byrne is a good friend of mine. How long have I known him? Well, about as long as you have, probably. It’s been around 30 years, when I first got to know the Talking Heads. The relationship was more distant at first, but as time has gone on, and he’s gone from a band leader to a solo artist, the friendship has grown.

You see, I think that David cares about me. And he cares about you. Around the time of True Stories, it seemed that Byrne looked down on the common folk and was making fun of their oddities. Far from it. Byrne’s work shows quite the opposite -- he loves everyone and celebrates what makes each person unique.

It comes through in so much of his music. And perhaps never moreso than on this second collaboration with Brian Eno. It’s interesting that Byrne credits Eno’s music for drawing out this humanity. He described Eno’s instrumental tracks as “folk-electronic-gospel” and that these inspired the warmth that permeates his lyrics and vocals. I wouldn’t doubt this for a second, but I’d add that Eno’s music merely amplified a lot of Byrne’s pre-existing notions.

The music here is so basic, and deliberately so. Eno’s love of texture allows classic gospel/blues chords to sound fresh again. Acoustic guitars meet with modern keyboards and there is no clash whatsoever. It’s subtle and effective, as demonstrated on “My Big Nurse”. This languid number could have been written in the ‘20s and conjures up an image of Byrne in a hammock, gently swaying while strumming his guitar, while Eno, wearing a straw hat, accompanies him on the keys.

The song is also interesting in the context of the neo-gospel that both Eno and Byrne refer to in their separate liner essays. Byrne’s “big nurse” seems like a compromise between Eastern and Western religions. Byrne catalogs the good and bad that happens in the world, and finds comfort “from the science of the heart/to each animal and plant.” I find his comfort comforting.

The gospel feel is the most overt on the title cut. Over light guitars and keyboard accents, Byrne sings a simple melody as he contemplates mortality and mercy after seeing his “neighbor’s car explode.” Yes, that may read funny, but Byrne is achingly sincere. The music builds slowly, until the song hits a full chorus, invoking the title phrase. What is great about this song is how it uses some classic images (ex. -- “in the deepest silence/gold and diamonds/all through the night”) within words that are spiritual without being religious.

Taking a much different tack, Byrne and Eno travel to David Bowie/’70s disco sounds on the wonderful “Strange Overtones”. Some have speculated that Byrne’s lyrics are about Eno: “Your song still needs a chorus/I know you’ll figure it out/the rising of the verses/a change of key will let you out.” Perhaps, perhaps not, though the lines, “I see the music in your face/that your words cannot explain” may give it away. Regardless, this relaxed groove and the love that permeates this song make it irresistible.

Of course, many of the other songs here are hard to resist, whether it’s the Memphis soul horn fueled “Life Is Long” or the wobbly cod-reggae pop of “Wanted For Life”. Regardless of the music, the sensibility and compassion make this a very cohesive work. And friendship -- both the friendship between Byrne and Eno, and the artists with their fans.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Well Wishers -- Jigsaw Days

The Well Wishers -- Jigsaw Days (Self Released)

What a difference a cover can make. When The Well Wishers covered The Chameleons’ “Nostalgia” on its last album, it cast the band’s music in a somewhat different light. While the band has more than earned its “power pop” designation, the emotional weight that meshes well with a post-punk undercurrent is what makes the Wishers stand out.

On this new disc, the big guitar riffs and the dreamy melodies are intact. But there is also a pervading melancholy that provides an attractive tension to many of these songs. Main man Jeff Shelton is pulling off a feat that many a great post-punker has turned -- being introspective while also being expansive.

This shows up not only in the music, but in the lyrics. The opener, “Heroes”, not only relies on a clever arrangement, where the verses are built on a series of musical buildups (it’s hard for me to describe), but articulate words. The song seems to be about the search for someone to pull your ass out of your problems. The music has a real drive to it, with a sadder undercurrent, providing and intersection between hope and reality.

The pithy closer, “Is”, has Shelton engaging in a bit of political philosophy. Basically, he gets rid of everyone who is causing all of our problems. I like the worldview.

But it’s the middle of the CD where the real action is. Yes, the centerpieces are truly the center pieces of this effort. “Drunk on the Tilt-o-Wheel” is a heartbreaker of a tune. The song features Shelton alone with his electric guitar. He analogizes his heartbreak with the repetition of a carnival ride, and ends up turning to the bottle. The melody is so simple and the spare presentation is a wise arranging choice. When Shelton comes out of the sole refrain in the song and sings, “I’m drinking again” with all of the pain and resignation he can muster, it’s truly arresting.

This is followed by the jet fueled “Moving Mountains”. The song comes in on a bed of riffing guitars. The song sounds like a hypothetical mid-point between Lindsey Buckingham and Bob Mould, with Mould dominating. Liquid melodies meet choppy and crunchy guitars (which keep the melodies buoyant) riding a skipping rhythm. This song isn’t fast, yet it’s all velocity. The adrenaline rush is resolved by a propulsive chorus that slows down the rush without giving up the power. Add Shelton’s blistering solo which heads into another driving verse and this is rock nirvana. This is one of the ten best songs of 2008.

The only flaw with the track is that it has to come to an end. Pretty much the same thing can be said about the album, which is barely over half an hour long. While I wouldn’t want to rush Shelton, or have him give up his tight song constructions, more tunes would be great, and if he wants to stretch out and show off more of the textures, atmospheres and lead guitar magic, I’d be up for it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Vivian Girls -- Vivian Girls

Vivian Girls -- Vivian Girls (In The Red)

This trio follows in the footsteps of acts like The Shop Assistants, Tiger Trap and The Jesus And Mary Chain, offering classic pop song structure with winsomeness and some guitar racket. The band’s sound is instantly appealing.

But the album is more defined by its mood and atmosphere than compelling songs. When a good hook is present, this is pretty wonderful. It just doesn’t happen enough.

The first time it happens is on “Going Insane”, which is 89 seconds of rise-and-fall melody with the chorus punctuated by Frankie Rose’s crashing symbols. It’s also hard to resist the charms of the relatively quiet (or un-clangorous?) “Where Do You Run To?” Rather than blast the feedback, the band shows off its harmony vocal skills in the best possible light on a true charmer. This is the only track on which the chorus really builds and is, by far, the most memorable song on the disc.

However, although the basic melodic ideas are similar on other tracks, the lack of lyrical phrases that stick is a hindrance. There are a few instrumental flourishes that catch, but they aren’t enough. The overall effect is that I think the Vivian Girls have a lot of good ideas but can’t be bothered to work them out into good songs.

I would go so far as to say that the low-fi production does not serve the band well. It blurs what should be distinct in the band’s sound. I think the ghostly nature of the vocals would not be harmed by sharper production that put things into better focus.

There is clearly potential here, but it sounds like The Vivian Girls either hit the studio too early or couldn’t be bothered to fully execute their songs. I will be very interested in how this band develops.